(Reuters) - Shotmaker extraordinaire Bubba Watson birdied three of the first eight holes and conjured another from desert scrub on 17 to seize a two-stroke lead in Saturday's third round of the Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The former Masters champion, co-leader with Australian journeyman Matt Jones after the delayed second round was completed earlier in the day, fired a three-under-par 68 in front of record crowds on a sunny day at the TPC Scottsdale.
American left-hander Watson, seeking his first PGA Tour title since his breakthrough major win at the 2012 Masters, mixed four birdies and a lone bogey at the 10th with several scrambled pars for a 15-under total of 198.
Burly Kevin Stadler reeled off five birdies in the last six holes for a 67 to sit two strokes off the pace, one ahead of fellow Americans Harris English (69) and Ryan Moore (64) and Japan's Hideki Matsuyama (68).
Jones recovered from a run of three straight bogeys on the back nine with birdies on the last two holes for a 72 to finish at 11 under, eight better than local favorite Phil Mickelson, whose 72 included a double-bogey at the par-three 16th.
But it was Watson, renowned for his creative shot-making and power hitting off the tee, who thrilled many of the 189,722 fans who turned out in a record number for any golf tournament.
"It was a struggle down the back nine but I held it together, made some key putts, made some key up-and-downs," Watson, who missed several fairways after the turn, told Golf Channel. "I held it together, that's the part I like.
"Got one more tough day but what I am seeing, building for the future, is it's coming together pretty good."
Watson covered the back nine in level-par 36, offsetting a bogey at the 10th with a stunning birdie at the par-four 17th where his drive ended up in desert scrub with little chance of reaching the green before he got up and down from 44 yards.
Watched in amazement by his playing partners Jones and Greg Chalmers, also of Australia, Watson struck his second shot to 15 feet before coolly sinking the putt.
"That was very big," Watson smiled. "That was easily my best shot of the week, hitting that chip shot ... to get it on the green from there was pretty amazing."
English, two shots off the pace after the second round, made a fast start by draining a 15-foot eagle putt at the par-five third to move briefly into a tie at the top with Watson and Jones.
Both Watson and Jones birdied the third to edge a stroke clear before the Australian slipped back with bogeys at the fourth and sixth.
Watson took advantage, birdies at the sixth and eighth putting him four ahead before his lead was trimmed to three when English birdied the ninth.
Out in three-under 32, Watson made his only bogey of the day at the par-four 10th, where his approach ended up in a greenside bunker and he missed a six-foot putt for par.
Watson was unfortunate not to birdie the 16th, his putt from seven feet taking an unexpected bounce into the air off some sand before finishing up an inch to the right of the cup.
The flamboyant strokemaker then produced his miracle birdie at the 17th to regain a two-shot lead before parring the last.
Three-times Phoenix Open champion Mickelson, who attended Arizona State University, was especially annoyed with his double at the 16th where he "lost focus" thinking about his plan to throw several footballs into the crowd.
"It's the last time I'm going to do that because mentally I was thinking about throwing it a couple holes prior," said Mickelson, who missed the green to the left off the tee before leaving his second shot short of the putting surface.
"It took me out of my element. I hit the worst shot imaginable on that 16th hole, and then I followed with four other terrible ones.
"I thought it was going to be fun, and it kind of took away my focus," added Mickelson, who impressed the fans with his quarterback arm as he three several autographed Arizona State University footballs into the stands.
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Gene Cherry